Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
Baseball season is just around the corner. Whether or not you’re a Mariners fan—or even a baseball fan!—you know at least some of the lingo. We use baseball terms every day without even thinking about it. If someone gives an answer that’s close to the best answer we say that she’s in the ballpark. If he answers several questions in a row and gets them all right, we say he’s batting 1000. If she makes it to the highest level of her profession we say she’s in the big leagues. If I do my best to make sure that all the steps are followed, I’m covering my bases. If someone says or does something that surprises you, you might say they threw you a curveball. If they’re mistaken about what you believe to be the facts, you say they’re off base.
One of the most common baseball terms is three strikes… and you’re out! Washington state has a law called the “Three Strikes Law.” But the term “three strikes” has other uses, as well. For example, these days we might use “three strikes” to describe the disaster in Japan: Earthquake, tsunami, nuclear crisis. Three strikes, and Japan is out…of power. Three strikes and many people are out…of housing. Three strikes, and they’re out…of luck.
Today’s reading from John tells the story of a woman who knew all about “three strikes.” Samaritans and Jews—these two groups both lived in Israel but didn’t like each other at all. They had most of their history in common but they had different beliefs. Both groups thought they were right. Think: Democrats and Republicans. Shiites and Sunnis. Lutherans and…used to be Catholics—now, whatever group you don’t like! In today’s reading Jesus is traveling through Samaria–hostile territory–and his friends are wondering what he’s thinking.
But he comes to a well and meets a woman who had three strikes against her. She was a Samaritan. That made her a social outcast among Jews, and Jesus was a Jew. That’s one strike. And, she was a woman. Jews and Samaritans at least had that much in common: women were considered second-class citizens. That’s two strikes. And finally, there’s a good chance that she was considered an outcast even by other Samaritan women. We know that she met Jesus at a well. Hauling water was women’s work so women gathered early in the morning while the day was still cool to get water from the well. It would’ve been hard work each day but also a great opportunity to meet other women from the village for conversation.
Thing is, John tells us that the Samaritan woman met Jesus at noon! This was the heat of the day. No woman in her right mind would be out collecting water at that hour. Unless—she felt that she didn’t have any choice. Unless–she was considered an outcast by other Samaritan women. Later, she reveals that she’d been married five times, and the man she was now with was not her husband. Did that have something to do with it? We don’t know. What’s important is that she had three strikes against her. And yet, Jesus not only spoke to her—which was unheard of for any man, let alone a Jewish man!—but he listened to her.
Where are you in this story? Probably most of us have some experience of the disciples, or townspeople, who wonder what kind of knucklehead would hang out with “those” people—whoever “those people” are.
And surely there are at least some of us who can relate to the Samaritan woman. Maybe you know the sting of being judged because of your appearance or body size. Maybe you know what it means to be discriminated against because of your skin color, or gender, or sexual orientation, or age, or physical disability, or level of education. Maybe you know the experience of one of these. Or, maybe two. Or even three.
Three strikes…and you’re out, we say. Out of choices. Out of luck. Out of hope.
Where are you in the story? Is there some time when, like Jesus, you took the risk of being with people outside your comfort zone? Have there been times when you’ve mustered the courage to forget about what society says; forget about what your friends think; forget what you’ve been taught; forget the little voice inside your head that judges people, and just stop long enough to listen? Maybe learn something from those who seem strange, threatening, or maybe just different from you? Maybe even find that you have more in common than you thought?
Hope is the great gift that Jesus gave the woman at the well. She had three strikes against her; and yet, in her encounter with Jesus she began to see possibilities for herself that she hadn’t seen before. She began to wonder if her future might not be as predictable as she had thought. Here was someone who listened to her, who argued with her, who dared to risk ridicule in the eyes of his friends. It all sounds pretty ordinary but for someone who had experienced a whole lot of pain in her life such ordinary kindnesses were a big deal. Such ordinary acts can be signs of love.
So imagine this woman who must’ve been starved for love having this experience of being lavished with love, which apparently not even her own people had given her. And this stranger, this Jew, looks into her eyes and into her heart and seems to know all about her. You must be a prophet! she says. And she runs back to tell all the townspeople about him. Long and the short of it is that they all find out about him and experience his love for themselves. They ask him to stay, and he does—for two days! 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Hope is the great gift that Jesus gave the woman, and in fact, her whole community. Hope is our gift, as well. For our neighborhoods and our world–hope is the point. It’s the point of the simple acts of kindness and generosity you extend to one another and to those who because of distance or disability are not able to be here among us. Hope is the point of hosting men in our church for a month each year. It’s the point of making quilts, and hauling groceries to the food bank, buying and selling fair trade products—because we never know who has three strikes against them and is just this far from running out of hope. Hope is the point of responding to emergencies far away, whether on the Gulf Coast, or Haiti, or Japan.
But maybe most of all, we extend hope in the ordinary encounters with people in our own backyards. We extend it through the words of our mission statement. We extend hope through the Affirmation of Welcome. Through symbols of hearts, and rainbows, and crosses, through food and laughter and story—we extend hope.
We extend hope because, like the woman at the well, we ourselves have received hope. We extend love because we ourselves have received love. Like the people of that Samaritan village we discover that not only are we loved, we’ve always been loved, and will always be loved—and nothing can change that.
May the One who loves us and all people give us courage always to follow him into unfamiliar territory, for Jesus’ sake. AMEN